Kentucky boy embodies the power of one
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- A year ago, when Adam Bender was 7 years old, he found a wheelchair in his family's garage.
Standing just outside the garage, the door open, he called out to his mother, Michelle. "Mom," he said, "come here."
Pointing inside at the rusty, folded-up wheelchair, he said, "What's that doing here?" Anger was floating in the air.
"That's here just in case of an emergency," she said. "We might need it if you hurt your leg."
"Get it out of here," Adam said. "Get rid of it."
"What do you want me to do with it?" Michelle asked.
"I don't know. Get rid of it. I'm never using it."
"I'm just keeping it there in case we need it for something," Michelle said, knowing she had already lost the argument. As usual, Adam wasn't budging.
"I'm not getting in it."
Within a few hours, the wheelchair was gone.
At the age of 8, Adam Bender is in many ways typical. He tolerates school. He quarrels with his older brother and younger sister. At times, he listens to his parents; at times, he ignores them. He imagines a career as a zookeeper. Outside of school, he spends most of his time in the gyms and on the playing fields of Lexington, Ky.
He plays baseball.
He plays football.
He plays soccer.
He even wrestles.
A typical 8-year-old boy -- except, Adam Bender has only one leg.
Four days after his first birthday, doctors at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., amputated Adam Bender's entire left leg. They removed the hip from the socket and sheared away everything below the pelvis. Adam's leg was sacrificed to save his life. He had been born with a highly volatile malignant tumor embedded in his left thigh. Chemotherapy had failed. The tumor might have easily metastasized. The leg had to go. Unlike 98 percent of amputees, Adam would have no stump whatsoever, no muscle to use for leverage, nothing to propel him forward, no tissue to which he could attach a conventional prosthetic.
Adam Bender is an 8-year-old boy who had cancer as an infant. The tumor that wrapped around his leg forced it to be amputated. But it has not stopped Adam, who competes in all types of sports -- baseball (as a catcher), football (as a quarterback), soccer and wrestling. He even has his own Web site on which he encourages that all children, no matter their ability, have a chance to play sports.
Jeremy Schaap tells the story of this boy who plays on. Watch "E:60" at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN.
Despite the fact that she was a physical therapist and often had worked with amputees, despite the fact that her brother was disabled, when Michelle Bender walked into the recovery room shortly after Adam's surgery, she was not prepared to see her infant son with a bandage where his leg had been.
"They had him covered up," she says, "and I didn't want to take the covers down because I thought, 'Well, maybe it's still there, maybe it's still there,' and I took the covers off, and it was gone."
Those first hours might have been the hardest. Adam was in pain, and Michelle and her husband, Chris, were in anguish as they contemplated the challenges their son would face. But the morning after the surgery, Adam signaled that he was prepared to move on.
"I felt something hit me in the forehead," Michelle says. "I was laying in this chair, and I thought, 'What the heck?' I sat up and I looked, and that little turkey was standing at the crib on one leg and he had thrown his pacifier at me -- and laughed. And that's the moment, I remember that I thought, 'He's going to make it. He's going to be OK.'"
Since that morning seven years ago, Adam has been better than OK.
At age 3, Adam decided he wanted to play soccer, just like his brother, Steven, eleven months his senior. Chris and Michelle were hesitant. If Adam injured or broke his leg, he would be confined to a wheelchair, possibly for months. But Adam had a plan. One afternoon as they were watching Steven play an organized game, Adam tricked his mother into removing the cumbersome prosthetic leg attached around his waist -- he told her he needed to go to the bathroom -- grabbed his crutches and scrambled onto the field in the middle of the game. Paying no attention to the boys already playing, Adam trapped the ball with a crutch, controlled it as he moved forward, kicked it and scored.
"Soccer was first," Chris Bender says. "I think it just fit him fairly well. As a 3-, 4-year-old, you're playing on a fairly small field. And so he didn't have trouble covering a lot of ground. He learned to swing through on his crutches and kick a ball."
Soon Adam was learning to play baseball, too. But when he expressed a desire to play T-ball, a coach told Michelle that Adam would fit in better in a league for children with disabilities -- a suggestion Adam rejected.
"I don't want to play in the Miracle League," Adam told his mother. "I'm too good for that. They'll never get me out. Those kids in wheelchairs can't catch me."
Michelle informed the commissioner of the T-ball league that Adam would not be playing in the Miracle League -- and that was that. Hitting and fielding on one leg, running the bases on crutches, Adam proved he could play with the boys with two legs.
Then there was pee wee football, the next sport Adam convinced his parents they could not deny him the opportunity to play. His coach turned him into a quarterback, the position at which a lack of mobility can most easily be overcome (see Marino, Dan, or Bledsoe, Drew), and he delivered.
Along the way, Adam stopped wearing his prosthetic leg. Because of the awkward fit, it never helped him get around any quicker; its only purpose was aesthetic. Michelle wanted him to wear it at family reunions and for school pictures. With pants over it, Adam did not appear to have a disability.
"I'm never ashamed of my child, but you think, 'OK, the world is not always that accepting,'" Michelle says. "So you want to present your child as the most normal child you can. So we did this prosthetic thing, put the prosthesis on him, and he walked with it just to please Mom. Put it on him for pictures and all that But he was miserable, and I'm thinking, 'Who am I doing this for, me or him?' I realized it was for me and he didn't want to wear it."
Like the wheelchair after it, the leg was essentially discarded. Even when those around him are uncomfortable with the sight of a one-legged boy, Adam's message is clear: I don't care what you think.
These days, Adam plays his baseball in a coach-pitch league. Watching him play is not merely inspiring. It's fascinating. A testament to human adaptability. He plays catcher -- on one leg, without crutches. He plays third base -- on one leg, without crutches. He hits on one leg, again without crutches, and hops -- that is the precise verb, not a judgment -- to first base on one leg. When he reaches first base, he grabs his crutches and uses them until he scores or the inning ends. From home to first, he is, as you might expect, far from fleet; but he is not an easy out. In fact, Adam can hit, and he can throw -- not many balls get by him either at third or behind the plate. Playing on one leg, Adam is still among the better players on the field.
Locally, Adam is celebrated for his skills -- no one has seen a boy on one leg do the things he does -- but mostly for his toughness. Chris and Michelle have resisted treating him differently than they treat Steven and their daughter, Morgan.
"The first time I saw Adam Bender, I watched Adam try to field a ground ball," says Bruce Rector, one of Adam's coaches, "and he fell like a ton of bricks. He fell as hard as a kid could fall, and my initial reaction was to step forward to try to help him. And then I looked over and I saw his mom and dad, and they weren't rushing over. I could tell they were paying attention to him, making sure he was OK, but sure enough, Adam rolled over in his own way, he got up, back on one leg, dusted himself off and was ready to go. And that told me a lot about not just Adam Bender, but the Bender family. He's a very unique kid, and a special kid with a special heart, that's been raised in a way that was unique for a kid with his challenge in a way that's going to propel him to a lot of success in life."
When Adam is asked how he does it -- how he can play so many sports so well on one leg -- he has no response. It is like asking people how they breathe. Some things defy articulation, especially for 8-year-olds.
Still, Adam is not quiet. He is popular at school, the class cutup. He likes to talk and he likes to talk smack -- mostly about the University of Kentucky Wildcats.
"Adam, who does your father root for?"
"Who does your mother root for?"
"Who does your brother root for?"
"Who do you root for?"
"Whoever's playing Kentucky."
Contrarianism is one of Adam's defining characteristics. After all, when you've spent your whole life defying expectations and prejudices, you build up a healthy antipathy for conformity.
Five months ago, Adam's life changed instantly when the Lexington Herald-Leader published a story detailing his athletic exploits. Suddenly, he was a celebrity. A YouTube video showing him catching and hitting generated even more interest. The Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros all invited him to catch a ceremonial first pitch -- offers that were accepted. Country singer Garth Brooks invited the Benders to his gala in Las Vegas, where more laurels were thrown at Adam, who seems no more impressed with himself than he did before he was walking red carpets.
In fact, none of the adulation seems to have inflated Adam's ego, not even the incident in Cincinnati when Adam Dunn, then of the Reds, responded to a fan's request for an autograph only to realize the fan was asking for an autograph from the smaller Adam at Dunn's side.
Lately, Adam has embraced wrestling, a sport at which he might be able to continue to excel long after team sports are in his past. At a certain point, he might not be able to keep up with boys his age on the baseball or soccer field. As they get stronger and faster, as the games become more about competition than fun, as teams become more selective, Adam might be left behind athletically, and his crutches might no longer be welcome. But, in wrestling, he probably will have superior upper body strength compared to that of the boys he competes against. They will weigh, say, 160 pounds with two legs; he'll weigh 160 pounds with one leg. Wrestling might be his future.
For now, though, Adam continues to be an athletic renaissance man. A day without a game is a waste. An hour without activity can be only sleep.
Slowly, Adam is beginning to understand why he has inspired so many people, not just the ballplayers and country music stars, but the kids and coaches who come up to him after every game to express their admiration. Slowly, he has come to realize that with every base hit, with every goal, with every touchdown, with every effort to be just like every other kid, he proves how special he is.
"The energy and zeal that he has on a daily basis will carry him wherever he needs to go," Chris says. "I worry about him less than either of my other two kids. I do, and that's strange, but I'm not as worried about him. I don't see that demeanor leaving him. I just don't think it will."
A few weeks ago, Adam drew a picture of himself. For the first time, he drew only one leg.
"All along, preschool, everything, he always drew himself with two legs," Michelle says. "It was amazing. I mean, it made me realize then that, you know, all this stuff that we suffered through, he's OK.
"I honestly feel like this is God's plan. I was guided through this because there is a certain plan for my little boy, and I think he's living part of it right now. He's very inspirational to people. I just don't think that his life was meant to be with two legs."
Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is a New York Times best-selling author ("Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History") and a contributor to "ABC World News Tonight" and "Nightline."